Fashionista has been affectionately following designer Chris Benz's career for years, from soliciting his advice in our "Ask Chris Benz" column, to poking around his studio, to getting him to chat with guests during our first-ever "How I'm Making It" conference. As he embarks on his next journey as the creative director of Bill Blass, set to relaunch Nov. 1, we were so pleased when he agreed to join us at our third Fashionista meetup. There, he spoke with our Editor-at-Large Lauren Sherman about how he got into fashion, "winding down" his namesake clothing line, his advice for aspiring designers and his innovative plans for Bill Blass.
Benz knew he loved fashion at an early age, but wasn't sure how to turn that passion into a career until a fateful evening in his (and my) native Seattle, where Donna Karan staged a fashion show while he was in high school. "I just marched right down and was like, 'Ms. Karan, I think I want to be a fashion designer. Do you have any tips for me?' And she said, 'You have to go to Parsons, you must go to Parsons, it's where everyone goes.' I was like, oh, my life is set. I’m only going to Parsons."
That he did. In fact, he got permission from his high school to go a year early. "I ended up at Parsons for almost five years. It’s as rigorous a curriculum as you could imagine." Interestingly, despite getting a coveted scholarship from the CFDA as a junior, Benz did not have any looks in the school's senior show. "As senior in fashion school, you, like, might as well kill yourself." Clearly, those shows must not carry too much weight.
Benz decided not to start his own line right out of school. Instead, he followed up an internship at Marc Jacobs with a job at J.Crew. "I didn’t feel like starting my collection was right when I graduated from school because what could I possibly have known at 22 years old?" he said. "I really wanted to go and work at a place where I could understand more about the industry — more about how the whole system worked because it’s something that I just didn’t really learn in school."
Thanks to "lots of encouragement" and a pre-2008 economy, Benz got a business partner — a design marketing major from Parsons — got some money together and did start his own line in 2007 when he was still only 25.
"I feel like one of the biggest pitfalls in the industry is overdesign. I would rather make fabulous, gorgeous clothes that people will want to wear and aren’t confusing and that was always the philosophy behind the Chris Benz collection," he said. As buzzy and well-received as his collections were, running a business did not come without its challenges, the biggest of which, he said, was "having to churn out hundreds of new products every few months from scratch."
After five years and 20 collections, Benz started to "wind down" the label, as he puts it, something he had never really discussed publicly before. He compares that period to the end of "Seinfeld." "In some ways we had told all of the stories with that girl...As we wound everything up, it was Rick Owens, Alex Wang. The aesthetic [of the time] didn’t support what the aesthetic of the brand was. So we were all fabulous actors on a great TV show for five years and then actors go on to work on other shows that are just as good."
His advice for designers who want to start their own lines? "Don’t do it without the money; make sure that you have multiple millions of dollars to start because don’t think that the selling of clothes is going to support and propel the business," he said. "You could be two years out before seeing one dollar from a dress that you sold."
Benz took a year off, moved to Brooklyn, did yoga — and then Bill Blass President Stuart M. Goldblatt came calling. Given the brand's storied past, Benz was hesitant at first, but became more receptive to the idea when he realized he had the opportunity to "create an entirely new company."
One way he's doing things differently is by eluding the traditional fashion calendar, which he said he's grown exhausted with. "We’re approaching it from a cerebral way, where maybe it’s only 10 looks, maybe it’s only shirt dresses in one capsule...The goal is to give women fabulous product on an ongoing basis and that’s the way women shop. You don’t care if it’s resort '14, spring '15, you just want to go on e-commerce and buy something cool for a party you’re going to on the weekend." He continued, "We want to build a wardrobe for our customer over 20 or 30 years." He didn't give too many specifics, but it sounds like there will be a lot of accessories, with items available at a range of price points. "We really want to be accessible to people and I want the most amount of people to get our product," he said. "We’re developing product in a huge range of categories."
As for where those products will be available, head to Billblass.com on Nov. 1 (or right now, because there's a really cool splash page up). Benz says a lot of energy is being invested into the brand's e-commerce site, and that they're "having ongoing conversations with retailers as well." Stay tuned.
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